27 March 2012

La Dolce Vita

One might say that the gardening season begins with the garden plan or the starting of seeds indoors.  Both are reasonable assertions, but it really feels like the gardening season has begun once one begins working the ground, which is what we've been doing over the past few weeks. 

helping us prepare the beds

Our garden beds required some serious clearing before they could be worked and planted.  For days I pulled dried pepper and eggplant roots, cleared tomato and pea vines, and dug up fall kale and turnips.  Most noteworthy though is the cornstalk removal:  clearing and piling hundreds of cornstalks and hoeing the tough, spidery roots sounds really simple, and it is, but it is also very exhausting when one does it for several hours per day.  These aren't small garden beds we're talkin' about here people.  We garden over 8500 square feet.  That might sound like annoying labor, but actually, it feels great.  And with my daughter playing next to me, the sun on our skin, and the mind-boggling warm March breeze in our hair, it feels like paradise.  The farm is already so beautiful I have to pinch myself to make sure it's real.  

one of hundreds of corn roots

We're trying something different with those 8500 square feet this year:  we are taking a no-till gardening approach.  That means that the rototiller isn't doing the work.  I am.  In addition to removing obvious debris, I'm hoeing, by hand, all the clumps of grass, clover, and weeds in order to least disrupt the soil.  Last season we overtilled; this year we're compensating. After clearing the beds, we are heavily mulching them and then pulling back the mulch for planting.  The heavy mulching strategy is to save weeding time and retain moisture.  Nick and a friend have been getting hay from a nearby generous farmer's haymow for mulch.  Last year I did much of the mulching which severely aggravated my allergies.  This year I've taken to the hoeing, which is physically demanding, but saving us a lot in Claritin expense and, I'd like to think, balancing out my craft beer addiction.  Nick confirmed that this was a good idea when he discovered that the haymow is not only a hangout for the property cats, but also a cat cemetery.  He and his friend are counting cat carcasses.  You'd be surprised by the numbers.  I'm happily hoeing knowing that both my asthma and stomach are undisturbed.  Gross.

On the bright side, I get some hot, rugged, manliness happening in my backyard.  Guys like girls in bikinis washing cars.  I'll take guys in work boots throwing bails of hay.

Nick's anonymous ponytailed friend didn't get the tank top memo


With such promising weather, we've gotten most of our spring crops in the ground: Amish snap peas, green arrow peas, four types of lettuce, two arugulas, two types of chives, several types of radishes and beets, and some Parisian carrots.  I'm insanely excited about the arugula.  Expect many photos in the near future of grilled pizzas with arugula and shaved Parmesan.   

After a week of clearing, hoeing, and planting I had a decent farmer's tan.  I also took the welcome opportunity to indulge my cosmopolitan side and go downtown to the Art Institute of Chicago for The Tuscan Sun Cookbook book tour and signing with the authors, Frances and Edward Mayes.  It was a great chance to meet the authors, get a signed copy of the book, and maybe most exciting, have several of the recipes from the book prepared by the kitchen of Terzo Piano in the new modern wing.  The wine pairings didn't hurt either.  The meal was fantastic, but also timely.  We will have chickens arriving in just a matter of weeks.  Ed's Crostini Neri is a delicious manner of preparing chicken livers.  Also, the Mushroom Sformato that accompanied the Quail Braised with Juniper Berries and Pancetta with roasted vegetables is a tasty and elegant use of eggs, which we will be plentiful when our layers are in full swing.  I greatly enjoyed the roasted fennel in the roasted vegetable medley, but I'm a real sucker for fennel.  We are starting a Florence Fennel and Romanesco Fennel in our perennial bed.  Lastly, Massimo and Daniela's Wine Cake, a ricotta cake, with Cherries Steeped in Red Wine is possibly one of the best cakes I've ever had.  Not only am I always looking for another purpose for the homemade ricotta we often have in our fridge, but the cherries from our cherry tree will definitely end up in this dish come June.  The Tuscan Sun Cookbook recipes are wonderful and the book itself is a beautiful testament to Italian culture and cuisine.
Olive all'Ascolana and Ed's Crostini Neri

Massimo and Daniela's Wine Cake with Cherries Steeped in Red Wine

My father gave me a signed copy of Under The Tuscan Sun years ago.  Apparently, Frances Mayes is a family obsession.  For some reason I didn't read it promptly, but it ended up being one of the first books I read upon moving to the farm, which is very fitting given that she writes about transforming a house and gardens.  It's admittedly a little different since my garden is in rural Illinois and hers is in Tuscany, but the sentiment is similar: enjoying food, family, land and living la dolce vita.  That's what this garden adventure is all about after all: sharing a satisfying family project, harvesting and preparing the best food, enjoying each other to the fullest, and ultimately, experiencing a highly aesthetic life.  

As I walked down Michigan Avenue this week, the old sights and sounds of the city were refreshing.  I embraced the anonymity.  Driving among the cabbies had a nostalgic annoyance.  Even the blisters from the heels I took out of storage felt oddly good.  And while the city has much to offer by way of culture, I missed the country.  I missed the sound of the wind and the open spaces.  I missed being outside with my daughter.  And by the 20th block, I was really starting to miss my gardening clogs.  I wanted to get back to the daily life we have here, the unencumbered daily life.  We don't have highlights like Michelin star restaurants or world-class museums and you won't stumble upon a gem of a cafe or discover a new bistro.  I love strolling the streets of the cities of the world.  It's what I loved about living in Chicago and Seville and the many European and American cities I've visited.  But when it's time to come home, I appreciate the uninfringed personal space and time of the country, the simple beauty of nature, and the quiet.  There is such freedom and comfort in that quiet, the quiet that allows your thoughts to meander wherever they like uninterrupted by sirens, strangers, and street life.  That quiet allows my mind to find peace, or maybe it allows peace to enter my mind.  The manner in which it happens isn't as important as the fact that it does indeed happen.  Somehow in a chaotic world on a farm in the middle of the Midwest, I found peace of mind.  The irony of that statement is great given the many places and manners in which I had been seeking it.   

If you had asked me ten years ago where I saw myself in the future, I could not have foreseen my current life.  Living quiet family life in the countryside with a big garden anticipating the arrival of our chickens and bees would have sounded more foreign than taking up Tango in Argentina or living in an ashram in India.  I haven't become less adventurous, but more balanced--the balance of seeking beauty and creating beauty.

The crux of the matter transcends city versus country living.  It's about finding joy internally as well as externally.  It's about discovering the beauty of the world and expressing it.  My young life was consumed with what the world had to offer me and as I discovered those offerings, I began to wonder what I had to offer it.  Someone somewhere created those discoveries and maybe I am obliged to do the same.  I don't have a fully developed idea of what that offering is quite yet.  Perhaps I never will.  But if one believes as I do that our outside world is a reflection of our inside world, and vice versa, then it's important to start in a place of peace and beauty and happiness to allow those things to emerge from within.  In other words, to spread la dolce vita, one must live it first.  And for me, that begins in a humble house full of love with my family, good food, and a garden.

dusk scene: child with dog, husband with grill, garden debris burning